• This drink has been part of Javanese culture for millennia. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
The ancient herbal beverage is traditionally linked to Indonesian royalty.
Seraphina Seow

24 Jun 2020 - 11:54 AM  UPDATED 24 Jun 2020 - 11:54 AM

If you’ve never heard of jamu before, you may be missing out on a huge part of Indonesian culture.

Many Indonesians have grown up drinking this slow-brewed herbal tonic. Mention the word ‘jamu’ and Indonesians will picture a middle-aged woman shuffling down the street with a 25-kilogram basket on her back, filled with glass bottles holding various concoctions.

Jamu originated in Java, Indonesia, more than 1000 years ago – the drink apparently kept royal women healthy and beautiful after bearing children. It became available to local people when sold via jamu gendong vendors (the name means ‘to carry on one’s back’), with a focus on promoting health for women.

In traditional Javanese culture, a woman’s role was to be her family’s caregiver. To do this effectively, they were expected to strive for optimal health. Women would rise as early as 3am to harvest plants and spices to brew jamu for herself and her family first, then sell the leftover jamu around the neighbourhood.

Women became the main drinkers of jamu and source of jamu knowledge, which they would pass onto their daughters. As a result, they dominated the jamu gendong space.

Jamu sellers were often not able to fully dedicate their efforts to their business because of the strong motherhood mandate in the Javanese community. Many felt that they needed to assume a humble position and not present themselves as business owners. A woman’s jamu business primarily existed to maintain the health of her husband, children and the local community.

Jamu originated in Java, Indonesia, more than 1000 years ago – the drink apparently kept royal women healthy and beautiful after bearing children.

“When carrying these heavy baskets, the jamu lady could only a travel a short distance before she had to come home, and she still did her role as a mother and wife to look after the household,” says Nova Dewi Setiabudi, a Javanese jamu entrepreneur based in modern Jakarta.

Her business, Suwe Ora Jamu, has been running for eight years and reaches far beyond her neighborhood. She has opened seven jamu bars in Indonesia, supplies to retailers, has recently published a book about jamu, and travels around Indonesia and internationally to educate the public about jamu.

“The society in Indonesia now is more open for women to share that we are business owners,” she says.

So what's the entrepreneur's next goal? For the next generation to cherish this beloved drink.

“Jamu is a treasure of Indonesia, and I dream of the jamu story living on in Indonesia and around the world,” she says.

She'd be delighted to know that her dream is being realised. Surya and Julie Dharma, a couple living on the Gold Coast, have brought jamu to Australian shores. Each month their business, Jamu Jawa, sells at four farmers markets across the Gold Coast, delivers to 30 regular customers, as well as supplies to select grocery stores.

“I was very very keen on it,” Julie says. “It’s just such an old tradition, and as we know more and more in modern times is that the turmeric is so valuable for its healing properties.”

Surya and Julie previously lived in Bali for 15 years and Surya, who is of Chinese-Balinese heritage, learnt to make jamu there. They use tamarind pulp and organic turmeric to make their signature jamu in Australia.

“Jamu is a treasure of Indonesia, and I dream of the jamu story living on in Indonesia and around the world."

Surya doesn’t skimp on the process. “It takes me six to seven hours to make one batch of 40 litres,” he explains. And the response from the community has shown that it’s well worth it.

“Everyone loved it, it was so unique for them, sort of earthy but sort of citrus-y, even though it doesn’t have citrus in it.”

While they are aiming to share jamu with non-Indonesians, their loyal customers continue to be from Indonesia.

“We are involved with the [Indonesian] association here and whenever Surya went anywhere like to a meal function, he’d get all these pre-orders and the ladies would all be buying them for their girlfriends because they were all missing jamu,” Julie says.

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